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Church Trends: Riding the Wave in The Garden State

One of the great joys of serving the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey (ABCNJ), a fellowship of 280 churches and 320 active clergy, is that each week I can observe the ongoing evolution of church life and ministry.
Five trends have emerged from my observations.

No. 1: Smaller churches are becoming naturally diverse.

I am most excited to see some of our smaller churches move from being sociologically and culturally homogenous to naturally diverse communities of faith.

Seaview Baptist Church in Linwood, for example, has been transformed from a largely Caucasian church with a small African-American population to a church that has assimilated Haitian, Chinese, Colombian, British, Filipino and Iranian families.

Frank Reeder, senior pastor, became aware of this transformation three years ago on a Pentecost Sunday. He observes: “This is what the Kingdom is all about – being one in Christ across cultures.”

The church did not plan this transformation, he noted. Rather, it has been an initiative of the Holy Spirit.

No. 2: Missional initiatives are crossing traditional boundaries.

ABCNJ is the first ABC-USA region to network with Fresh Expressions US, a missional movement originating from Great Britain.

The philosophy animating Fresh Expressions is simple but challenging: How can we reach groups of people who are not interested in attending traditional church and work with them to develop creative and innovative forms of Christian community?

Our region is just beginning to launch some efforts.

NextGen Church, a 5-year-old ABCNJ congregation pastored by Mia Chang, originally was founded to reach out to the Korean professional community in the Princeton corridor but has naturally evolved to include other Asians, Africans, African-Americans and Anglos.

Now, it is reaching across new boundaries by creating Fresh Expressions projects in an inner city elementary school in Trenton and for millennials in the Princeton area.

No. 3: Engaging the global community through collaborative mission trips.

The desire of local churches to be directly involved in cross-cultural and international mission work is well documented, and one of its manifestations – the short-term mission trip – has become a standard activity for many churches.

In our region, we have seen another trend – toward cooperation among local churches, and between local churches and the region.

We coordinate this through our ABCNJ Go Global Task Force. It is common for Go Global meetings to address initiatives across several continents.

At recent gatherings, we focused on an array of global concerns:

  • An informal partnership between Ghanian Baptist churches and ABCNJ to form a new church in Newark
  • An initiative with Haitian Baptists to live out sister church relationships based on equalitarian friendship and wisdom sharing
  • Emergency aid to the Philippine Baptist Convention in response to the typhoon, which damaged some of their 150 churches
  • Hosting a group of Brazilian Baptist young adults, coming alongside a fledgling Rwandan Baptist movement of churches by providing teaching and scholarships for their pastors and national leadership
  • Introducing a newly commissioned ABC missionary to South Africa to our churches

What all of these projects have in common is the principle of cooperation. We believe working together, rather than as isolated entities, releases wisdom, provides accountability and maximizes impact and effectiveness.

No. 4: The end of some congregations’ ministries.

Not every trend we are seeing in New Jersey is positive. The American recession that began in 2007-08 has slowly, but decisively, taken its toll on our less healthy congregations.

Lacking an adequate membership, these congregations have found it increasingly difficult to maintain aging facilities, support full-time clergy (with health and retirement benefits), and engage in meaningful mission outside of their four walls.

ABCNJ’s regional ministry team has worked with several churches as they realize their journey is coming to an end.

No. 5: An increase in the use of social networking and online resources.

After an initial period of hesitation, congregations are embracing social networking and online communication with diverse results.

The ability of churches and pastors to search for resources online has weakened the ties to denominational organizations and ministries.

Online, all resources look alike and are often perceived as equally valid or authoritative.

Even ministries like ABCNJ, which enjoys a close relationship with its churches, can no longer assume that we will be the automatic agency of choice as churches seek partners for ministry or resources.

While many trends I am seeing are positive, I am not daunted by even the challenging trends I’ve described.

Dying churches can leave behind legacy endowments that can seed future ministries. Social networking and easy access to resources around the globe can bring new ideas and relationships that extend the work of God’s kingdom.

Trends, both positive and negative, are like waves in the ocean; let’s ride them all into a future of possibilities.

Lee B. Spitzer serves as the executive minister and senior regional pastor of the American Baptist Churches of New Jersey (ABCNJ). He is the author of several books, including “Making Friends, Making Disciples.” You can follow him on Twitter @leespitzer.

Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of articles on church trends. An article by Matt Snowden on trends in local churches’ mission engagement will appear tomorrow.